It seems like everyone passes through Atlanta, the hub of the south, but almost no-one seems to spend any length of time there, or explore the city beyond the confines of its downtown business district. Perhaps that’s not surprising, given that all Google throws up when you do an image search are depictions of a skyline that could be anywhere in the world. At Stanford’s, London’s largest travel bookshop, I could only find one travel guide on Atlanta, from the soulless, ever-so-earnest Wallpaper series. (It had one good listing in it – the rest of the booklet devoted itself to staircases of note, and wanky boutique hotels). As a result, I expected a soulless, corporate centre (Coca-Cola, CNN) set in a sprawling sea of projects (which I imagined all that hip hop ATL is so famous for must be coming from).
I was proved wrong. Yes, Atlanta has a concrety, skyscapery city centre, and yes, there are only a tiny handful of historic buildings left downtown, such as the Georgia State Capitol and the Tabernacle concert hall. But outside this relatively small core – think Croydon or Frankfurt minus pedestrians – is a lush, verdant city consisting of quiet, well-kept streets which are made up of wooden houses and brownstones. Almost all of Atlanta’s cityscape is low rise and human in scale, making it a joy to explore on foot (a pursuit which will immediately mark you at as European or very odd, or probably both.)
Atlanta is so green, it has a tree coverage of 53.9 per cent, ranking first of all major cities in the US. And they don’t just have any trees: gorgeous pink crate myrtles are in bloom everywhere, accentuated by white magnolias and – if you look closely enough – peach trees (a fruit Georgians are famously dotty about). And the people? Well, they say Southerners are hospitable and Atlantans certainly live up to that label. Here, people make time to talk – but crucially, they also get things done. Visit any café or restaurant and you’ll find that staff have found the sweet spot between easy-going small talk and American-style speed and efficiency. So here are a few highlights of the city.
Leaving the tourist attractions of The World of Coca-Cola, CNN and the Georgia Aquarium (which everyone raves about) for later, take a breather first and acclimatise to the city in the serenity of Midtown’s Piedmont Park. Gleaming in the distance, you’ll see the tall buildings of the business district, together with the W Hotel, while all around you there is beauty on display. The sophisticated landscaping – based on the Olmsted Brothers’ 1912 design – creates a huge variety of vistas, uses, activities and people.
Take the time to explore and there are surprising features everywhere. At the park’s centre is a lake, almost hidden away by the surrounding trees. There are swings to relax in and a small path leads across the water to the swimming pool. Before you get there, you’ll pass a gazebo inviting you to stop awhile and take in the view. The running track, basketball and tennis court attracts some astonishingly handsome locals who casually display their perfect physiques. On Sundays, the picnic stands play host to cookout parties, blasting R&B and hip hop out into the park. And in the back, there’s a vast expanse of mud for dogs both big and small to play in, which keeps the belabelled lifestyle gays who own them away from the cruising ground (legal waiver: there isn’t one). Best of all, if you’re into longboarding, you’ll have hours of fun on the park’s slopes and inclines, with just enough people to make slaloming around them a little bit of fun.
The truth about grits
If you’ve had enough or your tummy rumbles, there are a number of great cafés and restaurants nearby: Willy’s and Zocalo’s serve Mexican, and The Flying Biscuit is so renowned for its breakfast people stand in line on Sundays. Do not miss but never, ever order grits by themselves – add shrimps or frankly, anything at all to this tasteless pap. I thought my tongue was malfunctioning but in reality, I just didn’t know that this quintessential southern favourite has the consistency of glue (sadly lacking its taste). And another word of warning – your Biscuit may be airborne at this restaurant, but your wifi will stay grounded. To go online, y’all cross the road and hook yourself up for free at the Caribou coffee shop on the corner of 10th St and Piedmont Ave.
By the way, did I mention that this is the heart of Atlanta’s premier gaybourhood? Just in case the massive rainbow flag flying from Zocalo’s didn’t give the game away….
Stay tuned for more of Hotlanta’s delights in the next post!